Wednesday, 22 October 2014

New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos


Ramsey Campbell (editor) New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1980
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I can't quite tell whether I'm burned out on Lovecraft and his adjective-heavy tales of gambrel roofed houses inherited from shunned uncles containing unholy books so rare and forbidden that only four thousand copies of each were ever bound, these accursed copies now residing in the countless dark libraries of the legions of shunned and shadowy uncles of New England whom no mumbling villager will discuss with impunity; or whether it is simply that this collection just isn't very good. I suppose the cover might be a clue. There she was just getting ready for bed in her fishnet stockings and suspenders when —eek!

If Crouch End isn't the first Stephen King tale I've read - as it may well be - it will probably be the last. I know The Shawshank Redemption and The Shining were great, but those were films which may have been adapted from slim pamphlets of disappointing limericks for all I know, and that one with the big clown spider thing defeated with the devilishly clever plot twist of having some kids pull its legs off was frankly rubbish. Crouch End derives from when King spent some time in London and is accordingly crammed with as much local flavour as possible;

Vetter was dotty, all right. He was also a bloody fag-mooch. Fags didn't come cheap in this brave new world of socialism and the welfare state.

Oh Stephen, you bloody plonker! Pull yourself together, bloke. Crouch End, were it not for gratuitous references to council flats and fish and chips every other sentence would be Terrance Dicks, which falls somewhat short of that which I'm fairly sure was promised by King's reputation.

Unfortunately, the rest isn't significantly better, mostly variations on the usual H.P. sauce about dark texts and nameless shit transposed to a modern setting and generally lacking the lyrical flourishes which made Lovecraft's own repetitive reworkings of his one story a little more readable. Basil Copper's Shaft 247, for example, reads like Lovecraft adapted as Pertwee era Doctor Who, and I swear I had to flip back a couple of times to remind myself of which one I was reading. In fact I've forgotten which story I was referring to since writing that sentence.

I say, the rest isn't significantly better, although there are thankfully two exceptions - T.E.D. Klein's Black Man with a Horn and Ramsey Campbell's own contribution. The former is a rambling and yet thoroughly absorbing tale told through a train of thought pursued by someone claiming to have known Lovecraft, so it retains a sense of humour and exhibits a degree of self-awareness which elevates it above the karaoke turns of the preceding pages, if anything making them look all the more crappy and juvenile. Campell's The Faces at Pine Dunes fares similarly well through doing its own thing, invoking that characteristically English frisson of horror for which Stephen King was probably fumbling, and not worrying too much with ticking every last one of the usual Lovecraftian boxes. New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos has been amongst the blandest things I've read this year, but Klein and Campbell shine so unusually bright as to blot all the other crap from memory, whatever it was.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Dart


Deborah Harvey Dart (2013)
I've recently been raking over old diaries dating to my teenage years, few of which I've read since the time they were written. These being from three decades past, naturally there are names I had entirely forgotten, and so I've been googling a few of those named out of sheer curiosity - just to see what comes up. One such person was Stella Gill about whom I recall very little beyond that she sent me a Christmas card, that we were in the same college drama class, and that she was nice. I can't find her on the internet, although one link that came up was to the blog of Deborah Harvey, which presumably mentions either a person named Stella, or named Gill, or the town of Stratford-on-Avon. The blog carried no relation to the object of my quest so far as I could tell, but I clicked on the link anyway because Deborah Harvey bore a passing resemblance to the mysterious Stella Gill as was, and so for a moment I had wondered if it was her in the photograph. It wasn't, but my attention was caught by the fact that this person had published a novel, and a novel which sounded quite interesting. I had a look inside on Amazon and decided that Deborah Harvey could at least hold a sentence together, which always helps; and so I bought a copy because it sounded worth a shot, and the pleasingly esoteric route by which chance had chosen to bring Dart to my attention seemed too good to ignore. Furthermore, taking a second look at Deborah Harvey's blog, I noticed her being scheduled to attend a poetry reading with Charles Thompson whom I briefly knew from when I lived in Maidstone - another amusing, perhaps even absurd coincidence and indication of it being a small world.

This probably relates to Dart in some way, given that its people also inhabit a small world, albeit a small world set against the terrifying contrast of a vast universe they clearly don't understand quite so well as I suppose we do today. Specifically Dart is set amongst the subsistence farmers of rural Dartmoor in 1348, the year the plague first came to English shores. In such isolation, that which is imagined can seem as powerful as that which is really out there. As I myself grew up on a farm without either central heating or any really good reason to dismiss the tales of witchcraft that old folks in neighbouring villages used to mutter to each other, I recognise the atmosphere cannily woven here by Harvey with something running a bit too dark and deep to be described as pleasure.

Dart can be broken down to fourteenth century folk struggling to deal with the horror of the plague, and to attempt further description might be overstating the point when really you would do better just to read it for yourself. Happily it isn't a folksy tale of men in tights who sing songs and do go a-questing across the moor in search of a cure, and nor is it the predictable triumph of simple, plucky souls over black-hearted landowners with fancy ways. There is nothing twee here, just a fucking great novel written by someone who really knows how to tell a story, handles words with the finesse of a real poet, and who really knows what she's writing about. The overall effect is, I suppose, what you might call immersive. The reader is left in no doubt as to just how different this world was to our own, and yet we find common ground through the experience of its people, as beautifully told by the author.

Considering how I effectively came to this novel by means of a process which may as well have been a housebrick launched from the upper deck of a bus, I really could not have wished for a more satisfying result. Dart is a tremendous and accomplished read, and I really, really, really hope Deborah Harvey has other novels up her sleeve.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Synthetic Man


Theodore  Sturgeon The Synthetic Man (1950)

This being the second novel I've read by Sturgeon, I must conclude that biology, mutation, and outsiders were common preoccupations of his writing as this one also features a group of freaks trying to make their way in the world. It's been a while since I read More Than Human, and I can't actually recall much of it beyond this distinguishing feature and the fact of it being extremely well written, but the freaks of The Synthetic Man - the earlier novel for what it may be worth - have banded together for safety as part of a travelling side show. The pseudo-gothic freak show has become something of a cliché, and without really caring enough to look anything up, I suspect it's probably been trotted out by Clive Barker, Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman and others with some frequency - although I personally thought Lawrence Miles used it very well in Interference - but Sturgeon writes with such lively confidence that it feels like a new idea, which is pretty good going for something published over half a century ago.

Kiddo, as he is known, turns out to be something much stranger than the robot implied by the title - at least to me - as Sturgeon asks us to consider the possibility of there being another form of life here on Earth unlike anything with which we are familiar, thus far undetected because it has no effect on us, nor we on it. Further to this we get Kiddo growing up as female in order to elude the wrath of its misanthropic sideshow owner - not simply the bold use of a transgendered main character at a time when this would have appeared quite shocking to at least a few of the readers, but a main character who is transgendered for reasons of narrative and theme rather than as a simple example of the freakish.

Sturgeon writes well with the warmth and authority of someone who weaves tales, as opposed to simply filling pages and making a living from the pulps. For want of a better description it's van Vogtian surrealism communicated with the simple clarity of Ray Bradbury, and The Synthetic Man has been a real find. I really need to keep an eye open for more by this guy.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Crime and Punishment


Fyodor Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment (1866)
Well, I suppose it serves me right for trying to broaden my horizons, to branch out and generally embiggen myself through the magic of proper literature sans airbrushed spacecraft on the covers. Crime and Punishment may well be deserving of its reputation, but I was bored shitless for the most part. I suppose it must be me, because no-one on the internet seems to have a bad word to say about this particular translation, the work of one Sidney Monas - indeed, this version is praised as definitive in a few places I've looked. I'm no stranger to the long-haired books section of the library, so I'm fairly certain of my not being entirely stupid, at least in so much as I can tell that there are readers considerably less perceptive than myself out there, but nevertheless I found Crime and Punishment a tremendous bore.

I spoke to my mother who told me that she had found it similarly turgid.

'I'm just not enjoying it,' I said.

'I don't think you're supposed to enjoy it,' she suggested.

Similarly, my friend Andy Martin opined that Dostoyevsky, like Gogol and Pushkin, is one huge yawn from start to finish, and Andy is both well and widely read.

I'm not saying either that Crime and Punishment is without merit or that I hated every minute, but some chapters were distinctly more engaging than others, and the more yawnsome sections became such a slog as to mean that it became pointless my reading them during the bedtime shift. I generally read for an hour after I get up each morning, and then for another hour before I go to bed. For some reason I am better able to appreciate detail in the morning, although the difference is rarely so pronounced as to make for books which I can't read at all in the evening, but this was one of them; and so it really began to drag out as I took to reading Danny Baker's autobiography and then an L.Ron Hubbard novella before bed - you know, reading for pleasure.

I've enjoyed Danny Baker's radio shows for many years, and have appeared on one of them at least twice. Going to Sea in a Sieve (2012) relates the best part of his younger years growing up in and around Bermondsey and Deptford in south-east London up until his first television appearances. It retains his typically ripe turn of phrase as heard on the wireless, and makes for a genuinely fascinating read even beyond the wisecracks, not least because it turns out that I know a few of the places in which he grew up; and I'd even go so far as to say that Going to Sea in a Sieve represents a valuable time capsule of both an era and a specific kind of childhood which probably doesn't happen any longer, what with your downloads and your pornotubes and what have you. Belly laughs alternate with moments of surprising profundity.

It was George Currie, the fantastic wiry guitarist from Dundee that now stepped forward as spokesman for the band.

'Why don't you fuck off?' he reasoned.

Obviously I'm quoting that as an example of the former.

If I have any criticism, it is that the tone occasionally veers into the as told to territory of the ghostwritten celebrity footballer biography, as I said to my famous friend, Adge Cutler of the chart topping Wurzels pop band; but I suspect this may be just a natural interference pattern resulting from what is essentially a conversation set down as prose. In any case, it's not a massive problem, and Going to Sea in a Sieve makes for one hell of a livelier read than Crime and Punishment.

Returning to which, I got through Crime and Punishment in the end, which at least suggests it has some discernible value above those few novels on which I've given up with just a hundred or so pages left, Robert Heinlein's fucking abominable Stranger in a Strange Land for example. Cheating, I consulted Wikipedia every few days in order to work out what I had just read:

Crime and Punishment focuses on the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished ex-student in St. Petersburg who formulates and executes a plan to kill an unscrupulous pawnbroker for her cash. Raskolnikov argues that with the pawnbroker's money he can perform good deeds to counterbalance the crime, while ridding the world of a worthless vermin. He also commits this murder to test his own hypothesis that some people are naturally capable of such things, and even have the right to do them. Several times throughout the novel, Raskolnikov justifies his actions by comparing himself with Napoleon Bonaparte, believing that murder is permissible in pursuit of a higher purpose.

Most of this I already knew. Some of it seemed unclear, and I remained unable to see quite how the novel was doing that which it supposedly does for about three quarters of the book. The translator's afterword suggest this to be a novel concerned with the gulf between ideology and human nature, which makes it sound a lot more interesting than I found it. I can see it in passages such as:

'I'll show you their books. It's always the influence of the environment with them, that's all they know! They love that phrase! If society were constructed normally, therefore, all crimes would disappear at once because there would be nothing to protest against and we'd all become righteous in a flash. Nature doesn't count; nature gets chased away; nature's not supposed to exist! They won't have mankind developing along some living historical path to the end, turning finally of itself into normal society; but on the contrary, a social system emerging from some kind of mathematical brain that's going to reconstruct mankind and make it in one moment righteous and sinless, quicker than any life process, no living or historical path needed! Instinctively they don't like history, and that's why.'

Unfortunately I found instances of such clarity few and far between, islands amongst page after page of rambling dialogue of ambiguous consequence, sometimes with one person holding forth before another for the duration of an entire chapter, complete with aggravating self-conscious digressions of are you still listening? or you must think I'm going on a bit, old fruit and the like - no fucking kidding.

Oddly, just as some modern novels read like television drama - the work of authors who would rather be writing for their favourite medium, but can't either because they're too shit even for television or all this time they've been sucking the wrong dicks; Crime and Punishment reads in part like a stage production set down as print due to prohibitive length, and in a couple of places it reads as though the narrative is aware of this to some extent. There is a scene in part one, chapter four wherein Raskolnikov encounters a vulnerable and obviously drunken girl in a park, and notices a seemingly villainous dandy lurking nearby with apparent ignoble intent. Raskolnikov discusses both the girl and the dandy with a policeman even as said dandy continues to lurk as though stood to one side of a stage, ready to resume his advances on the destitute girl. In part three, chapter five Razumikhin is described standing with his back to the audience, which feels like a theatrical allusion. Of course, unless I'm just imagining this layer of artificiality, it may itself be a deliberate evocation of the theme of ideology or hypothetical structure imposed over that which exists.

The above may of course all be complete bollocks, given that I'm reading a translation, and that I failed to really engage with it after the first few chapters. There are some interesting and arguably quite important ideas, poorly expressed - in my possibly limited view - which is a shame because they might also serve to explain why the Soviet Union went tits up once they made Joseph Stalin head boy, so it's a pity some of those guys apparently couldn't get to grips with this one either.

You're better off with Danny Baker.

At least I was.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

If I Were You


L. Ron Hubbard If I Were You (1941)

L. Ron Hubbard was the most important science-fiction author who ever lived, and so it is fitting that Galaxy Press should have endeavoured to rescue his many mighty works from pulp obscurity and return them at long last to print - and with this opening sentence I have at least saved you the trouble of reading Kevin J. Anderson's introduction. Galaxy Press seem to be financially although not necessarily ideologically associated with Scientology by some means, existing principally as a vehicle for Hubbard's work; so fair enough I guess. I still think they may have been trying too hard in certain respects given that I would have thought the majority of people picking up copies of these novellas will most likely already be well disposed towards the man. The glowing biographical summary of Hubbard's life in the rear of the book reads somewhat as though puddings may have been over-egged - I'm fairly certain the guy didn't actually invent either science-fiction or fantasy as genres; whilst Anderson smiles beatifically and points out that Shakespeare and Dickens were popular in their days, and that Hubbard's tales in the pulp magazines of the thirties and forties were popular in his day, so L. Ron Hubbard was therefore just like Shakespeare and Dickens for as history has shown, good stories are much more than fancy prose.

If nothing else, this does at least support my hunch that I don't really need to read anything written by Kevin J. Anderson. Oddly - and I realise I am here asking us all to pause and take another look at Hitler's paintings because some of them were quite nice really - I would say that all of this editorial reverence actually does Hubbard's fiction something of a disservice because - quite aside from what one may think of the man and his deeds - If I Were You is good enough to stand on its own merits. I'm not saying it's the greatest thing I've ever read, or that it necessarily represents a little known masterpiece, but Hubbard, if nothing else, was an accomplished writer within his field. Whilst it may be argued that his field was somewhat limited to romps and adventures of the kind which made names for Edgar Rice Burroughs and others, if his tales lack poetry, they were better told than those of many of his contemporaries. That is to say that If I Were You at least reads like the work of someone who knew exactly what he wanted to do and how to do it, and someone who couldn't really be described as a hack with any justification. True, it's the story of a circus midget swapping bodies with that of an unpleasant scheming ringmaster, with a splash of romance and just deserts duly served at the end, but it's an engaging read nevertheless; and I suppose you might also argue that certain themes prefigure the mythology Hubbard later expounded with the Church of Scientology, if you feel inclined to do so.

The Last Drop, the much shorter back up story follows the theme of size by shrinking its protagonists to gnomic proportions, and is less satisfying, but serves as an interesting snapshot of its era nonetheless.

While I'm sceptical of Hubbard's credentials as the neglected genius described in Kevin J. Anderson's introduction, it seems equally dubious to pretend that he never existed or to relegate his writing to a mere footnote in science-fiction history, because for the most part it seems to have been better than you might imagine.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Destiny Doll


Clifford D. Simak Destiny Doll (1971)

Destiny Doll is a quest and is as such one tale of a particular type which Simak clearly enjoyed writing at this stage of his career as he assembled peculiar bands of misfits and sent them off in search of something that was usually allegorical to a greater or lesser extent. He'd already done this in Out of Their Minds and would do it again in Enchanted Pilgrimage, The Fellowship of the Talisman, and others. I tend to dislike quest narratives on principal as they always seem to derive from authors who can't be arsed to come up with an actual story, but Simak always tackles the form with such vivid imagination as to sidestep most reasonable objections, and his quests feel more akin to The Wizard of Oz or even Alice in Wonderland than Tolkien and his legacy of grizzled ale-quaffing tedium.

Here a group of humans, one of whom is Friar Tuck - although no direct link to the Robin Hood legend is stated - all set off in search of a lost traveller and Roscoe, his telepathic robot. Along the way they encounter a race of probably robotic aliens resembling rocking horses, and Hoot, a sort of land-bound squid who joins their more-argumentative-than-merry band. Similarly askew with narrative convention, Ross our intrepid main man, is either a bit of a dick or at least significantly more cynical than the traditional hero, and treats Friar Tuck with near limitless contempt for reasons which remain unclear to the reader, at least unclear unless we simply accept that Ross is a bit of a dick. The quest itself is conducted in search of  some vague higher knowledge or understanding of the universe as supposedly achieved by the aforementioned lost traveller and his robot, and there seems to be a possibility that Simak himself either wasn't sure what they would find, or had no clear idea how best to express it. Ross and Friar Tuck respectively may represent cynicism and faith, and Tuck vanishes before the group come to the end of their quest, perhaps suggesting the view that the goal of a quest must by definition be unattainable, the journey being the point.

But there was no way to turn it off; for some reason I was committed and must keep on and could only hope that at some point along the way I could reach a stopping point—either a point where I could go no further or a point where I had learned or sensed all there was to learn and sense.

On the other hand, the disappearance of Friar Tuck may serve to highlight the supposed redundancy of blind faith, as Ross sees it in contrast to his own realism. Whichever the case, it becomes clear that Destiny Doll is an allegorical journey in the general tradition of David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, similarly impenetrable in places, but generally more readable.

The goal, when they get there, turns out to be an illusion - a 1960s Star Trek-style idyll complete with toga dress code concealing rot and decrepitude. At this point the choice becomes whether to accept the illusion as valid and hang around, or insist on the smellier, less pleasant reality. Ross initially opts for the latter, which may be where the Destiny Doll of the title comes in - a wooden fetish found by Friar Tuck which seems to represent utter despair, with destiny as that which will be, namely the inevitability of death, termination, confusion and so on - or realism as Ross would have it. All of this is debated within the greater environment of Simak's version of dualism, roughly speaking fellowship and the bond of all that lives in opposition to solitude and loneliness.

The conclusion, if there really is any one single conclusion here, depends either on the reader or repeat reading, this being the sort of novel which invites further investigation and poring over the subtle, more mystifying elements; not least because it's also a lot of fun, and certainly more successful than the next one, A Choice of Gods which attempted to take some of these ideas further.

After that issue of Granta, it's quite a relief to find that I am indeed still able to enjoy science-fiction, and so - as I suspected - Simak was a good choice as I clambered back into the saddle, so to speak. Destiny Doll is bewildering in places, but probably amongst Simak's more consciously literary efforts, and as such serves as a good example of why this author really deserves to be remembered with a little more fanfare than presently seems to be the case. Spaceships, gnomes, rocking horses, and folksy ontology - what's not to love?

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Granta 128: American Wild


Sigrid Rausing (editor) Granta 128: American Wild (2014)

I picked this up out of simple curiosity, and have ended up enjoying it so much as to prompt the uneasy suspicion that I have perhaps tired of science-fiction as a genre, science-fiction being the section of the book store in which the majority of my reading material is generally found. It's not that I ever regarded science-fiction as necessarily superior to anything else, just that it has held a particular fascination for me over the years. The absurdity of such a bias were it to be based on qualitative terms is demonstrated by moronic internet arguments about whether fantasy is better than reality as the substance of written fiction, and unfortunately I have seen such arguments. Those who say yes often state cases amounting to because real life is boring innit, which probably says more about them and their lives than it does about literature of any form.

I would rather gouge out my own eyes out with a spoon than sit through the tedium of a Mike Leigh film, opined one facebook dwelling Doctor Who fan in defence of a recent episode of the shit kids' show in which actors had spent an entire hour holding torches beneath each other's faces whilst delivering portentous lines such as the time is upon us and the future changes now because no-one had bothered to write a script that week.

The key word here is fan. The fan is a person who makes choices based on the logo or identification of a product, on whether that which is chosen belongs to an established canon or series of related - even interchangeable - products. In terms of fancy pants books without pictures, the fan will not prioritise great literature over literature featuring specific familiar characters or ideas which will hopefully seem great, or great-ish, or at least not too pants-shittingly awful. Fan has been grasped as a status of which one should be proud, which is partially taking the piss out of oneself before anyone else gets around to it, and partially dressing up insular tendencies as something clannish and somehow indicative of effort or dedication; because no-one likes to think of themselves as a sad, wilfully ignorant fucker. This is aided by a cultural climate in which it is no longer seen as permissable to quantify anything as definitively shite or worthless just in case it causes someone somewhere to feel a little bit inadequate and have themselves a sad. Boo hoo.

Unfortunately, some things just are definitively shite and worthless whichever way you look at them. Terrance Dicks may well be an efficient - if not necessarily great - writer if you're eight, but if you're stood in front of me gushing over Doctor Who and the Face of Evil at the age of anything over twenty, then I have no resource by which I can summon benefit of the doubt in sufficient quantities to view you as anything other than a bit of a berk, which apparently means I have an elitist attitude. This applies equally if you're dressed as Batman, or if you have more opinions about Torchwood than can be encapsulated within a single sentence of just three words; and as for games are really sophisticated these days with storylines and everything - oh piss off, you stupid wanker.

Anyway, my point is that it's really not what you write as how you write about it which matters, and that spacecraft are not in and of themselves interesting, and that whilst I try to avoid anything that's too obviously generically hacked-out science-fiction landfill, sometimes I feel like I may as well be reading one of Junior's fucking Pokémon books; or at least this was the thought which came to me when I started reading this, the American Wild themed edition of Granta. Being a bit thick, I had always assumed Granta was probably not for me, an eggheady boffinfest of Hampstead based tales of Guradnia subscribers experiencing existential nausea over a Waitrose kumquat, or something, but really it's mostly just short stories, albeit extraordinarily well-written short stories.

River So Close by Melinda Moustakis relates the almost surreally miserable lot of a worker in an Alaskan canning factory, and is probably the most startling and visceral thing I've read since The Darkening Light by Ted Curtis earlier this year, albeit without the orange diarrhoea. I found Callan Wink's Exotics particularly enjoyable for its being set in the very familiar territory of rural Texas, and it was nice to recognise so much of the landscape and its people; and nearly everything else here within these 256 pages is of equal calibre. The voices are dynamic, seemingly incapable of cliché or generic sentiment. This is what writing is supposed to do but so rarely does. The standard is so high that it borders on exhausting.

That said, I personally found two of the stories less satisfactory than the rest, and I could have lived without both Andrew Motion's contribution and the pointless Kerouac talk show thing - both the work of poetic types and of no real interest to me; besides which, I'm not sure why anyone would care what Andrew Motion thinks about the great American wilderness. I suspect it's just one of those deals where we assume that an Oxford graduate will always have something fascinating and insightful to tell us, regardless of the subject we set before him. Then again, the few less engaging contributions doubtless make sense to someone, and with such an otherwise thoroughly gripping collection, I'm not complaining. It seems a little worrying that one of the two stories I failed to enjoy might be deemed speculative if not actually full-blown science-fiction. Hopefully I haven't outgrown my own reading habits.